Memory is fascinating. It’s incredible that mere patterns of linkages could cause a past experience to overwhelm us. And we remember so much — most people seem able to vividly recall occurrences from a wide variety of times throughout their lives.
I’ve written a few posts about memory previously (here, here, and here), and so was obviously excited when I saw an advertisement for Simon Critchley’s new book Memory Theater. In addition to my fascination with neuroscientists’ efforts to understand memory, futurists’ efforts to reproduce it, and therapists’ efforts to re-color it, I’ve always loved writers’ efforts to understand the workings of their own minds. Because memory is so difficult to appreciate from outside someone’s head, hearing someone’s description of what memory feels like is still one of the best ways to understand the phenomenon. Proust is still mentioned quite frequently in neuroscience reviews.
Critchley’s book also appeared as though it would address the workings of our minds. The basic plot is simple enough. A philosopher receives boxes full of a friend’s old notes after that friend’s death. The notes contain both musings on memory and, alarmingly, a set of charts, one of which predicts the date of the philosopher’s own impending demise.
Reading the description of a box full of occult astrological charts, I couldn’t help but think of the “Jimmerson Spiral” from Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis. A lovely book, Masters of Atlantis, featuring an incredibly unreflective man named Lamar Jimmerson who starts a cult in the United States after being scammed in Europe. A grifter named Robert sold him a specious pamphlet about an exciting new religious order, the Gnomon, and, after failing to find higher leadership in the order, Lamar assumes that he himself might be regent. He returns to the U.S., spreads the order, and embellishes the cult with his own speculations… including the idea that fate can be predicted based on a diagram he deems the “Jimmerson Spiral.” The book is full of wry humor, very understated, like in this early passage:
The Armistice came and many of the doughboys set up a clamor to be sent home at once, though not Corporal Jimmerson, who remained loyally at his switchboard. He even volunteered to stay behind and help with all the administrative mopping-up tasks, so as to replenish his savings. In May 1919, he received his discharge in Paris, and went immediately to Marseilles and got deck passage on a mail boat to the island of Malta.
On arrival in Valletta he took a room at a cheap waterfront hotel called the Gregale. He then set out in search of the Gnomon Temple and his Gnomon brothers. He walked the streets looking at faces, looking for Robert, and clambered about on the rocky slopes surrounding the gray city that sometimes looked brown. He talked to taxicab drivers. They professed to know nothing. No one at the post office could help. He managed to get an appointment with the secretary to the island’s most famous resident, the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, but the fellow said he had never heard of Gnomons or Gnomonry and that the Grand Master could not be bothered with casual inquiries.
Lamar found three Rosenbergs and one Pappus in Valletta, none of whom would admit to being Master of Gnomons or Perfect Adept of Hermetical Science. He tried each of them a second time, appearing before them silently on this occasion, wearing his Poma and flashing the Codex. He greeted them with various Gnomon salutes–with his arms crossed, with his right hand grasping his left wrist, with his hands at his sides and the heel of his right foot forming a T against the instep of his left foot. At last in desperation he removed his Poma and clasped both hands atop his head, his arms making a kind of triangle. This was the sign for “Need assistance” and was not to be used lightly, Robert had told him. But Pappus and the Rosenbergs only turned away in fright or disgust.
Was he being too direct? A man who wishes to become a Freemason must himself take the initiative; his membership cannot be solicited. With Gnomonry, as Robert had explained, it was just the reverse. A man must be invited into the order; he must be bidden to approach the Master. Perhaps he was being too pushy. He must be patient. He must wait.
In addition to Masters of Atlantis, I often found myself thinking of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Thomas Bernhard’s Correction. Sebald’s work came to mind due to the discursive nature of Critchley’s text: in addition to passages describing events as they occur in the narrator’s temporal frame of reference, we read about philosophy, philosophers, musicians, and the narrator’s own past.
Thomas Bernhard’s Correction is alluded to throughout. The protagonist of Correction is similarly tasked with understanding a misguided construction project from the scattered notes remaining after a friend’s suicide. Indeed, both Correction and Memory Theater build toward the idea that perfection and cessation are inextricably linked. And both use interesting stylistic devices to convey a sense of madness to the reader. In Correction, there’s a disorienting propensity for repetition, as though the ideas and even sentences themselves are being worked over again and again in search of some platonic ideal. In Memory Theater, Critchley conveys mental duress through his liberal use of choppy sentence fragments; when these work well, the effect is quite striking:
I went to see a psychiatrist with psychoanalytic sympathies on the Upper East Side. Expensive. Platitudinous. Useless. He suggested hospitalization and prescribed antipsychotic drugs.
The protagonist of Memory Theater becomes obsessed with building an edifice to physically embody his memories. He invents symbols to represent everything he knows and uses these symbols to decorate figurines within a small chapel. Sitting inside, he feels that he can slowly move his gaze through the building and recollect everything he knows.
Clearly a foolhardy proposition. The fascinating thing about how much we remember is that it would take reams and reams of text to describe the same set of information stored by our neurons. In that tiny lump of fatty flesh. The theater built by Critchley’s protagonist obviously can’t convey the contents of his mind to anyone else, and it couldn’t even stir his own remembrance of everything he knows. He only built figurines to represent the memories he was able to consciously recall. If someone gave him a relic from his past, much more might swell forth unbidden. Memories he hadn’t even realized he still had.
Those relics are fascinating. Such small objects. And yet immense, sprawling narratives might be hidden by each.
For instance, a prisoner recently requested that I send a book of photography. I looked through our inventory and pulled The Best of Photojournalism 6 for him. Then began flipping through the pages: the prisoner’s facility, in addition to disallowing hardcover books and anything with spiral bindings, won’t let me send pornography. The Best of Photojournalism 6 certainly didn’t sound pornographic, but I figured a guard might flip through and check for racy photographs, which meant that, if I wanted to make sure the package didn’t get returned, I ought to too.
I didn’t notice anything overly scandalous, just a photograph that’d been used to illustrate a magazine article on peeping toms. This showed a man holding binoculars to his face, and reflected in each eyepiece was the silhouette of a woman undressing behind a diaphanously curtained window. The artist had made the image by cutting out the pictures of the window w/ undressing woman, pasting them into the eyepieces of his binocular image, then re-photographing the entire collage.
As I was flipping through the book, a letter fell out.
Dear Photographer: One or more pictures you submitted is under consideration for “The Best of Photojournalism 8.” Please give me some personal insight into your feelings about this photograph, what you were trying to do, etc. This will give added perspective to the picture as it is used in “The Best of PJ/8.”
The letter was postmarked two months before I was born.
How strange, I thought. This photographer received his acceptance notice, tucked it away into a previous edition of the series, and then, years later, donated that book. Good ol’ PJ/6.
I hope he kept his copy of volume 8, the one in which his own work (presumably) appeared.
And, getting back to Simon Critchley’s work — you can easily imagine that the recollections triggered by holding that envelope again and reading the actual letter inside would be far more vivid than anything the photographer might recall if shown a symbolic representation of that episode from his life. It’s quite possible that if the photographer were building his own memory theater, he wouldn’t even think to include anything related to that picture from over three decades ago. But surely there’s a story.
I suppose Amélie would try to get the letter to him and let him remember.